Paul Andersen: Legacy of the American conquistador
The Kodachrome shows it all. Young Paul Andersen sitting on the lap of a Lakota Sioux decorated in full feather headdress. In the background is the edifice of Mount Rushmore.
The picture was taken by my father in the early 1960s. The Sioux offered himself for tips as a photo op against the backdrop of American presidents carved into his once sacred mountains. His doleful smile haunts me still.
There were no tears, anguish or regrets. Only irony. That photo tells the story of the American West as a land of conquerors and vanquished.
This all comes clear after watching “The West,” a Ken Burns documentary. With simmering imagery the story is told of the American conquistadors who fashioned a history that is lurid, brutal and shameful, and yet whose myths define our national identity today.
It starts with America’s original sin – slavery. As settlement moved west of the Mississippi, slavery came with it as a looming storm cloud that would shatter the nation. The dramatic precursor of that storm was the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856.
This blood-letting was instigated by pro-slaver William Quantrill and his raiders who made “bleeding Kansas” a slaughterhouse on the Great Plains. Lawrence was a hint of what was to come with the butchery of the Civil War.
Two decades earlier, the founding of the Republic of Texas set the tone for future land grabs. The Alamo, brimming with mythic heroism and Texas pride, was a failed attempt at stealing land from Mexico. Later, Sam Houston’s defeat of Gen. Santa Anna was precursor to widespread militaristic aggression throughout the Southwest.
Native Americans were the ultimate victims, despite peacemaking by Lewis and Clark, the first official emissaries of the United States in Indian territories. Lewis and Clark were the first to make promises that would be broken, again and again.
The Nez Perce saved the Corps of Discovery from starvation, provided horses and helped the corps navigate the Western wilderness — all with the promise that the white man would never disturb their reverie in the Wallowa Valley of what is now Eastern Oregon.
Chief Joseph, the scion of the tribe and a noble human being, honored his part of the bargain. Not so for subsequent waves of American emigrants who trespassed on Nez Perce lands, just as they did on every native landscape that promised material riches — mostly supported by U.S. troops.
Where was a wall when the Natives needed it most to block the advance of American locusts who poured forth onto their traditional lands? This flood was engorged after the Civil War with huge wagon trains, many of them bearing Civil War veterans who had suffered post-traumatic stress from the most brutal industrial warfare to date.
Manifest Destiny became an invitation to vent those PTS symptoms on the American West. Genocide against Native Americans, near extinction of the buffalo and a brutally aggressive war against nature defined settlement patterns that we live with today and celebrate with nationalistic hubris. Damn the treaties — full speed ahead!
“The West” offers repeated heart tugs for the Sand Creek Massacre, the Cherokee’s “Trail of Tears,” the massacre at Wounded Knee, the murder of Sitting Bull, the rout of Chief Joseph, and many other horrors that describe genocide as a motive in our nation’s cruel quest for domination.
In Colorado, the Utes were evicted in 1881, after being provoked into the Meeker Massacre of 1879. Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin’s famous edict for the final solution against the Utes still hangs over the Roaring Fork Valley with a pall of guilt.
Popular mythology whitewashes the greed-driven incursions of those who came west before us. Theft, fraud and butchery were the sad underpinnings of the “civilizing” of the savage West where savagery became an American virtue that fomented a string of heartbreaks.
It is no wonder the U.S. became a nation of rapacious materialists spurred by me-first capitalism, coming of age as it did by plundering what appeared to be the boundless cornucopia of frontier resources — all there for the taking.
Those takings were a crime against humanity and nature. The resulting orgy of consumption has never abated.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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